One of the top three questions I get asked privately and when teaching or even at a book signing, is whether or not one should attend school and the financial debt associated with it, or jump into the workplace. I’ve been working professionally for a while now and began doing so where I could, after graduating from Pratt with a painting degree, and highschool before that. Pretty basic assumed way of doing things especially in my time before anyone uttered the phrase “gap year”. Even so, back then Grad School was a thing, and a thing a lot of people did and do. Nowadays there’s a wide variety of “schools” like IMC, or SmArt School that off er alternatives to someone seeking an attending school experience or boost while being in the world working, proper grad programs and just about any kind of way in between. Should you go to a set program like Yale grad School, or one of these short term programs, get a tutor, get a job? And the answer is like many if these I am sorry to report is muddled and never the same for any of us. The key to finding the answer that fits your need the best means getting to know what any of it means for you with regards to who you are as a person, an artist and what is worth spending on for what’s next. Because school is honestly, at the end of the day, all about preparing you for whatever’s next. And because of this I recomend starting there and working backwards towards a decision. Here’s a simple guide with some direct experience that may help. Your whole life as a human person should be a life of a student, and if you live right always is. For artists this is especially important as the very thing you do requires surfing change and growth and those two only work with increased knowledge and education. Whether that takes the form of school or life experience is the question here.
THE SCHOOL PATH
This is the old way of things, or at least old within the relative confines of the last century or so. But the need ratio of what Grad School can bring to you as an artist, or seeking to be a working artist vary wildly as a basic principle and even moreso depending on the program you choose. The big justifier usually for Grad School is thew money thing- it’s also it’s biggest cost. Let’s face it- Grad School is expensive. Undergrad is too, so let’s put that forward as well.
unpublished scene from Sudden Gravity
Now I say this as a person who went to art school, both in highschool and college at Pratt. I was on scholarship at Pratt so the expense, which was a lot but a fraction of what it costs now, was far less a concern. And to really bore down deep I went on an architecture scholarship, which turned out to be very much the wrong path, and switch to painting and fine art which again… I did not pursue as a career. Sounds like a waste of time right? It really wasn’t for a number of reasons. The biggest one might well be the incubator effect of being in school. Of being allowed to gestate, to grow and find myself to some degree before being out int he cold cruel world. School is often referred to as a bubble, and it is, and that can be a good thing if you need it. While I was certainly on the path to be a gallery artist in NYC, working at Artists Space my senior year, and as an art-assistant to Mary Frank, Joan Snyder and others I also walked away from school having more or less completed my first short graphic novel story- just about a dozen or so pages, and with an idea and desire to go bigger with the rough outline for SUDDEN GRAVITY, my first published comic anywhere. I even within a few months of graduating had meetings with Lou Stathis at Vertigo and was beginning doing some of those insane factoid books for Paradox/Pirhana Press. So clearly despite my asserted path, I knew to pursue another. Eventually and quite soon it became clear I didn’t want to have much of anything to do with the gallery scene, (and as a special side bar, I ended up moving in with and marrying one of my best friends from Pratt, the artist Jen Smith- and now almost twenty years and two kids later we are still trucking up here in the country woods of western mass- so that went well). All of this is to say while one could argue I may have been fine to have skipped school, except for the Jen part, and found my own self directed path into comics and children’s books etc… I would argue that the certainty of that path came from having the safe place sandbox that was school for me to find it. It was a place to test the wrong paths and find the right one, blind as I was at it, and with far less consequences and much greater speed than if I had to process through this passion play while having to hold down a job and pay rent. School bought me time to find myself, to grow and gather a community of artists and creative people together that I still see and share my life with even to this day. Pratt taught me the non conventional skills I was able to bring into the illustration work that i think even today puts me off the usual mark that helps my ability to get more or work and support myself. It provided me a familiararity with NYC that has been incredibly essential to my work and life that an otherwise shy boy from the Texas suburbs might not otherwise possess. School is stitched into the very fabric of my life in such a way I can barely find a strand that does not tie back to it in some form. It’s expensive and it’s at least four years and can feel like your sitting on the sidelines and in many ways that’s true- but it can be a crucible from which you can truly emerge mightier than you might otherwise be without it. And the hard thing is you may not appreciate it until long after. I was just doing what i was supposed to do by attending college- it never occurred to me there was another option. If I had known then what I know now, I would have still done it… though honestly i would have taken more advantage of that time I wasted there as a young idiot.
Graduate school is another matter. I know some who swear by it but I am not honestly a fan of it. You, in attending a grad program, have already gone through undergrad, so largely such an exercise is about two things: connections and the rolodex and honing a skill specifically. In my day if you were serious about getting into the fine art world attending Yale for grad school was the ideal club to be in- and all for the club reasons. It is where you could network and hobnob with the eventual art elite (and spend the rest of your life paying off its debt). Others it’s about a program that brings you a specific skill. But I would venture in seeking to become a professional person in the field I’m in: illustrations, books and film, it’s better to get out in the world and get working. Grad school can be too much bubble, too long a delay and yield benefits that make its expense too hard to justify. Again this is a personal thing. You may need and want that extra time, you may desire the skill set and the network it might bring to you. But at20 or so, it’s a good time to be out in the world and running amok in life overall.
THE MIDDLE WAY
IMC class photo by Dave Palumbo
This is online classes, short residencies and apprenticeships. This is a fairly new thing that’s come about in the last ten or so years, so I witness them as an older curmudgeon and not a total participant- fair warning. I have taught at times online and served some time teaching at the IMC and what I have seen however, has rerouted my thinking entirely. The level of intense focus and high level of teaching is unparalleled. It’s like art college espresso. IMC is only a week but arguable there’s as much material and experience to get there as a semester of the best art school. It and others like it, like Illustration Academy, lack by the nature of physics the slower roll of time and incubator, and as such the close knit community of shared week to week living, and all that passage of time it brings is not there. It’s a more focused determined approach mirroring more Graduate School than undergrad. It’s for the determined who largely aren’t lost and needing to find themselves and more for the focused. A week at IMC might get a piece or two finished if you really bang hard at it- so you won’t get the full vision scale and solidification, but attend it yearly… and keep working outside of it, and it can still deliver in big ways. Even if you booked IMC and SMART SCHOOL and other online private courses you’d still barely meet half the cost of a full undergrad program elsewhere and likely get almost the same level of technical development and learning. That’s it’s true value. it can help hone up and coming artists or provide the grad school substitute a recently freed undergrad can really get a lot from. and the teaching staff is in just about every one of these, of a caliber unmatched in an undergrad’s wettest of dreams. Again, it’s espresso style intensity, compacted and delivered. A day at IMC, 12-17 hours long, one on one, lectures and personal help an critiques is like a month anywhere else. But you need to be ready to receive that compressed data in a way and make the best of it because that week flies by in a heartbeat. You can waste it just like sitting on campus getting stoned all day does, or going to parties instead of working, just in a more compressed form. But you can use this to substitute for actual undergrad school, for the right kind of creative. It’s a bit of a hybrid of working in a job and spending time in school overlapping each other, and the connections are there… art directors career giants, and experienced grand masters teach at these programs and it might be worth the price of admission just to spend a week getting to know them and making those connections regardless of the learning- but I encourage you to come ready to learn and work and take full measure and advantage of the program. They are cheaper than full on art school but they aren’t cheap and you deserve to get your money’s worth.
THE WORKING PATH
A lot of folks say screw it, learn while working. on the job training is the best training there is. And that’s true by and large. It’s a bit like learning a second language: Learning to speak Spanish in school is a fine and steadfast way of going about it, but being in Mexico, immersed in the culture and having to learn that language on the go, well that is something else. You tend to be much more fluent and conversant faster this way than pursuing an academic training, but again it’s not for everyone. For example, immersive on the job training may teach you tools but it won’t necessarily teach you principles. Theory and understanding of a method or approach can be essential to mastering it- i know in many ways that is true for me personally. I am better at attending to a machine if I understand how it’s put together and why it works. It helps me troubleshoot when things get screwy and it helps me exploit the talents of whatever thing I am engaging in when I have a proper grokking of it as a thing unto itself. For me theory works, for others… maybe not so much.
Romulus and Raymond drawn on the back of sheetrock
paper during lunch at a construction job.
But the outside pressure of having to make a living and pay the bills can add a commercial aspect to your self art seeking that can warp and change it in unexpected ways. Life is big and busy and getting into it early can leave you overtaken by it in certain ways. Choices made in an act of survival are different from those made in a nest. You’ll have less time to go to gallery shows, read books and attend social gatherings with peers. Instead of spending eight hours a day in your studio, that time might be waiting tables, working in an office of sheet rocking apartment ceilings. Your art might have to come after that as mine did for many years after Pratt where I worked as a handyman type all day long, came home and went into the studio until 2-3 am to wake up the next day to repeat the cycle. The causal factors for getting lost in life and slowing and choking down the ability to find your best artistic self could diminish a lot over time- especially ads you get older, get married raise a family and start to take on outside obligations that further make seeking an art life more difficult and selfishly fanciful against your life obligations. I could have never started out, developed my own ability to make comics and hone my skills if much of that time wasn’t initially done while young free and willing to live off beans and beer and work twenty hours a day the only way a maniac in their twenties can who doesn’t have otherwise familial obligations to worry about. I have a lot of friends who are climbing that same ladder but with full on families in tow and day jobs that have become careers, and man it is HARD. But some folk aren’t built for school, and those folk should not think they need or have to have school in order to be a success. Some artists need to get out there and live in tiny cramped studio apartments and work long hours for short pay and struggle and find themselves through the fires of adult life and I entirely cheer that. I know a lot of successful artists who do and did and it was the best thing for them. It’s all about taking advantage of the poison you pick.
The Calendar Priest
SO… the key here really, is know thyself. it’s trite but true. Just because your pal Bob skipped school and went in hot and hard pursuing a career, doesn’t mean you should. just because your other pal, Susan blossomed in Grad School doesn’t mean you will or it’s price will be worthwhile. Essentially knowing what you need will help you avoid buying into something that doesn’t meet that need. And also know at least, and take comfort from the fact that no matter what you do, it will change and shape you asd an artist and whatever path you choose know that all of them are well travelled and there’s successes to be found in any of them. And it is possible to make the wrong choice and course correct. None of these options doom or guarantee success if you take full advantage of any of them. They will shape and change your life and career in ways you may not full see until decades later, but don’t let that inhibit canyon leaping or measured decisions going forward. Making life in art is never easy and is rarely rewarded. its a priesthood that never really gets to hear the whisper of the divine except in rare and unique occasions and all of it requires a lot of work and steadfastness that requires years of effort to pull successes from. but damn if it sin’t a lifes-blood that will make your life richer and more life in the end. Art life is about being and learning to be sensitive, to see and grow and challenge and fight and struggle and lose and win and fall and rise again. How you get into that passion play is up to you, and all paths can lead to it, so make it about what sized shoe fits your foot rather than the life and death choice some make it to be. All paths if pursued vigorously can lead to the same mountaintop- just be sure to know the character of each and take the fullest advantage of the one you choose and you’ll be fine.
Greg Ruth has been working in comics since 1993 and has published work for The New York Times, DC Comics, Fantagraphics Books, Dark Horse Comics, Harper Collins, Hyperion, Macmillan and Simon and Schuster amongst many others.
He has shown his paintings in New York, Houston, and Baltimore, and exhibited a series of murals at New York's Grand Central Terminal.
He has also helped craft music videos for Rob Thomas, and Prince, and has illustrated children's pictures books including; Our Enduring Spirit (with President Barack Obama), A Pirate's Guide to First Grade (with James Preller) and Red Kite, Blue Kite (with Ji Li Jiang), as well as many illustrated novels.
Greg currently lives and works in Western Massachusetts.